Most urbanized states in America
Bustling, productive cities are critical to the nation’s economy and well-being. They make money, provide skilled workers with quality jobs and good wages, offer a buffet of creative and business opportunities, foster culture and the arts, and more. Cities are booming, especially in the American South and West. The trend to urbanization is strong in America, and nearly everyone today lives in what is considered an urban or metropolitan area.
Most American cities grew organically, either situated on a navigable waterway, evolving into a center for trade, or rising from the prairie when the railroads arrived. Today they might be the headquarters of powerful corporate conglomerates or the energized and supportive backdrop for innovative tech startups.
However, the move toward urbanization easily gets out of hand. Development tramples open green space, poorly planned roads create traffic nightmares, policies favorable to single-family structures leave too many people unable to afford a decent roof over their heads, and air and water are polluted. In one telling statistic, research found that for every 1% of population growth, land use consumption has jumped as much as 8%. The unpleasant term “urban sprawl” connotes messy, oversized intrusion into rural areas, thoughtlessly wasted space, and unsightly development along the fringes of cities. Metropolitan areas stretch unchecked and meet in a patchwork of no design.
Nevertheless, many urban leaders in America have begun to understand these problems and are being creative and prescient in trying to control urban growth and limit sprawl, seeking a balance between the promotion of necessary and efficient development and the protection of the forests, beaches, and grassy plains.
To determine the most urbanized states in America, Stacker used data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service (ERS). All 50 states are ranked on the basis of the percent of their total land that is covered by urban areas as of 2012, the most recent survey year which is available from ERS (data released in 2017).
Click through to find out where your state ranks for urban development.
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- State covered by urban areas: <0.1% (166,427 acres)
--- Change from 2002: -0.3% (167,000 acres)
- State's biggest land use: Special-use areas (40.0% of state, 146.2 million acres)
The most rural state, Alaska has just two areas considered urban by the U.S. Census Bureau: Anchorage, with a population of 285,634, and Fairbanks, with 30,966 people. Anchorage got its start in 1915 with construction of a railroad to reach into the state’s interior, grew as a strategically critical site during World War II, and today serves as headquarters for oil companies.
- State covered by urban areas: 0.2% (127,802 acres)
--- Change from 2002: 17.2% (109,000 acres)
- State's biggest land use: Grassland pasture and range (74.2% of state, 46.1 million acres)
Wyoming’s two largest cities owe their existence to the railroads. The location of Cheyenne, now the capital, was selected in 1867 as a depot by the Union Pacific Railroad that was building its route westward from Omaha, Nebraska, and Council Bluffs, Iowa. Further to the northwest, the city of Casper began when the Fremont, Elkhorn & Missouri Valley Railroad built its tracks in 1888 for shipping cattle and wool.
- State covered by urban areas: 0.2% (194,916 acres)
--- Change from 2002: 16.0% (168,000 acres)
- State's biggest land use: Grassland pasture and range (51.1% of state, 47.6 million acres)
Though Montana is hardly considered urban, about 80% of its residents live within 50 miles of its seven growing cities. Five of the cities—Missoula, Kalispell, Bozeman, Helena, and Butte—are located in the Western Mountain region that has accounted for most of the state’s recent population growth. The other two cities are Great Falls to the north and Billings to the east.
#47. North Dakota
- State covered by urban areas: 0.3% (122,517 acres)
--- Change from 2002: 30.3% (94,000 acres)
- State's biggest land use: Cropland (61.4% of state, 27.1 million acres)
Fargo and West Fargo, at North Dakota’s eastern border with Minnesota, have been growing in population more than the combined growth of its five cities to the west (Bismarck, Mandan, Dickinson, Williston, and Watford City), where the state’s oil activity is primarily located. Fargo and West Fargo have more diverse economies, and Cass County, where they are located, has had the biggest influx of new foreign-born residents.
#46. South Dakota
- State covered by urban areas: 0.3% (152,283 acres)
--- Change from 2002: 41.0% (108,000 acres)
- State's biggest land use: Grassland pasture and range (51.5% of state, 25.0 million acres)
The fastest-growing city of South Dakota, Sioux Falls, was first settled by land speculators on the banks of the Big Sioux River in the mid-1800s. The original settlement was abandoned by white settlers, who left due to a Native American uprising in 1862 but returned when Fort Dakota was built nearby for protection. The arrival of the railroad in 1878 sparked the city’s first boost in population, and today its economy is a mix of agribusiness, finance, and health care services.
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- State covered by urban areas: 0.6% (331,204 acres)
--- Change from 2002: 25.9% (263,000 acres)
- State's biggest land use: Grassland pasture and range (34.8% of state, 18.4 million acres)
Idaho’s growth has been concentrated in its 200 incorporated cities, where the population increased 2.3% from 2018 to 2019, compared with the state’s overall growth rate of 2.1%. The fastest-growing are Idaho’s 15 mid-sized cities at 2.8%. Only Boise and Meridian have more than 100,000 residents, and Meridian was the fifth-fastest-growing city in the nation from 2010 to 2019.
#44. New Mexico
- State covered by urban areas: 0.7% (538,703 acres)
--- Change from 2002: 11.3% (484,000 acres)
- State's biggest land use: Grassland pasture and range (70.0% of state, 54.3 million acres)
Among New Mexico’s 33 counties, six are considered entirely rural, and another six mostly rural. But two-thirds qualify as urban, according to 2010 Census data. Two urban areas that attract population in particular are the counties that are home to Los Alamos National Labs and Cannon Air Force Base. Santa Fe’s population grew more than 20% from 2012 to 2017, in part from an influx of residents and in part from an annexation of 4,100 acres of land that added more than 13,000 residents.
- State covered by urban areas: 0.7% (344,212 acres)
--- Change from 2002: 17.5% (293,000 acres)
- State's biggest land use: Grassland pasture and range (48.2% of state, 23.7 million acres)
Nebraska’s rural north lost population, and its rural south has held steady, but the southeastern urban areas of Lincoln and Omaha saw a population growth of 11%, more than 100,000 people, from 2010 to 2018. In 2018, 56.5% of the state’s population lived in urban areas. The economy of the largest city, Omaha, is diversified, from packaged-food giant ConAgra to the Berkshire Hathaway conglomerate, Union Pacific railroad, and Mutual of Omaha insurance.
- State covered by urban areas: 0.7% (519,795 acres)
--- Change from 2002: 48.5% (350,000 acres)
- State's biggest land use: Grassland pasture and range (74.5% of state, 52.3 million acres)
The city of Las Vegas, the focal point of the state’s $67.6 billion-a-year tourism and hospitality industry, is one of the nation’s fastest-growing metropolitan areas. Its population soared from 273,000 in 1972 to 2.2 million in 2017. In 1950, fewer than 25,000 people lived in the desert city. Last year, nearly 21,000 people moved to Nevada from neighboring California.
- State covered by urban areas: 1.2% (614,139 acres)
--- Change from 2002: 38.3% (444,000 acres)
- State's biggest land use: Grassland pasture and range (62.3% of state, 32.8 million acres)
Approximately nine out of 10 residents live in an urban setting in Utah, one of the fastest-growing states in the nation. Much of the working population of some 1.6 million people live in cities and towns along the front range of the Wasatch Mountains, drawn there in large part by jobs in the state’s dynamic high-tech industry.
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